By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website
The expansion gives players lots of new areas to explore
Since its launch in November 2004 World of Warcraft (WoW) has become the most popular online role-playing game by a substantial margin. The latest estimates by WoW creator Blizzard suggest almost 7.5 million people have bought it.
Now the world of Warcraft is growing again via a substantial expansion pack called The Burning Crusade. For those that don't know The Burning Crusade refers to the ongoing efforts of the Burning Legion, a demonic army led
byKil'jaeden the Deceiver, to destroy all life in the Universe.
A big software update due towards the end of 2006 will make changes to the existing game in preparation for the Burning Crusade. This will mean some changes for all players but most of the extras in the expansion will only be available to those that buy the expansion pack.
WoW puts players in the fictional fantasy world of Azeroth where they go adventuring by carrying out quests and killing monsters for loot usually money or increasingly powerful equipment. The cash can be used to buy better gear and the fallen loot can be sold or auctioned to raise money.
Players control characters from one of eight races. Their character can play one of nine classes, such as warrior or rogue, and they can learn two of 12 professions. Higher level characters hit harder or have more magical power and spells at their disposal.
The many possible permutations of character, class, profession and level mean the game is easy to play but hard to master and this probably accounts for its ongoing popularity.
BURNING CRUSADE HIGHLIGHTS
Level cap increased to 70
Two new playable races - Blood Elf (Horde) and Draenei (Alliance)
Opening up of class structure. Horde can play paladins, Alliance can play shamans
New spells and talents for high-level characters
Expanded talent trees
New starting zones for new races, entire new continent Outland and new high-level dungeons.
New profession, Jewelcrafting and introduction of socketed items
Introduction of flying mounts
Honour system to be scrapped
Introduction of player-v-player arenas
Introduction of a "Looking for Group" system that helps players find other players doing the same quests
The expansion pack is currently in a closed beta test that gives a few lucky players a chance to try it out and log any bugs they find.
The BBC News website was invited to join the beta test and took the chance to create characters using the new races and take them questing around the new starting areas.
Blizzard has stressed that the beta only gives a preview of what will be in the final expansion. A lot could change between the test system and the version that makes it on to shop shelves.
The two new races, Blood Elves and Draenei, have been designed to balance the game's opposing factions. Races in WoW are members of either the Horde or Alliance factions.
The Alliance counts humans, dwarfs, gnomes and night elves among its ranks and these characters are generally easier on the eye than the Horde which has the undead, orc, troll and tauren races. However, the Horde starting quests are far more atmospheric than the rather generic fantasy setting of novice Alliance characters.
As a Horde race there is no doubt that the Blood Elves are much prettier than their brethren and their starting area is spectacular - especially Silvermoon city. Unfortunately, I found the early experience with a Blood Elf a bit tame. It felt too similar to a starting Alliance character and suffered the same lack of depth.
By contrast the opening stages of Draenei characters feels very different as this race has crash-landed on Azeroth in a space-ship. Early quests involve dealing with the aftermath of the crash and trying to find out what effect this has had on local flora and fauna.
The Blood Elves are undoubtedly prettier than others in their faction
The main section of the crashed ship, called the Exodar, is the Draenei capital and is just as spectacular as Silvermoon.
The introduction of the science-fictional element made the Draenei stand out and their accents and physical characteristics, horns and tails, gives them more personality than the rather anodyne Blood Elves. The Draenei racial ability, healing, also seemed more useful at low levels than the silence spell available to Blood Elves.
Many of the earlier quests for both Blood Elves and Draenei seemed to be more intricate than those in the main game. Often it was not a case of just killing lots of blameless creatures but more about investigating, helping other denizens and solving problems. These early adventures did a very good job of getting players to explore the new starting areas, finding out the lay of the land.
The early quests also gave better equipment early on - in its opening stages World of Warcraft can be a bit of a grind involving wanton slaughter just to gather enough cash for some shoddy weapons or armour.
But in the Burning Crusade the early quests for both Blood Elves and Draenei rewarded me with small bags to carry loot, some good armour and the chance to get some decent weapons too.
The preview of the expansion we got suggests that Blizzard has not rested on its laurels. The Burning Crusade does a lot of things better than the original and it is likely to help the game maintain its dominance of online adventuring.